I’ve long been a fan (from a respectful distance) of Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, ‘workshop of potential literature’; I posted about it here and here), so I was pleased to see Paul Grimstad’s LRB review of Daniel Levin Becker’s recent book on the subject. Herewith a few tidbits of LH interest:
The newest member of the Oulipo, Daniel Levin Becker, born in Chicago in 1984, opens his Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature with a description of a beau présent read at the funeral of François Caradec (an Oulipian and biographer of Roussel) at Montparnasse cemetery in 2008. A beau présent, or ‘beautiful inlaw’, is a version of the lipogram in which only the letters of the addressee’s name – in this case f, r, a, n, c, o, i, s, d, e – are used (in the inverse constraint, the ‘beautiful outlaw’, the letters of the person’s name are missing). [...]
An important distinction in the early phase of Oulipo was the difference between what they called anoulipism, devoted to discovery, and synthoulipism, devoted to invention. It wasn’t a hard and fast distinction: ‘from the one to the other there exist many subtle channels,’ as Le Lionnais put it in the First Oulipo Manifesto. Given the group’s concern with tradition, it is worth pointing out that the emphasis on potential rather than actual works is not at all a new idea. Borges is always imagining, even reviewing, potential works. Think of that wonderful list of Pierre Menard’s Nachlass with its Oulipian sounding experiments in French metrics and Boolean logic, essays on modifying the rules of chess, and ‘monograph on the possibility of constructing a poetic vocabulary … which would be ideal objects created according to conventions’ (this is not to overlook that astonishing exercise in potential literature where Menard, in copying out Don Quixote to the letter, ends up creating an entirely different work). In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov, another of Perec’s heroes, described a fictional country-house murder mystery which the narrator tells us is not so much about particular characters as about ‘methods of composition’. And in his sublime memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov compared the taste in the head he got from composing chess problems to ‘various other, more overt and fruitful operations of the creative mind, from the charting of dangerous seas to the writing of one of those incredible novels where the author, in a fit of lucid madness, has set himself certain unique rules’.[Footnote: Nabokov was briefly considered for induction into the Oulipo but the idea was scrapped, perhaps because, as he admitted in the preface to the screenplay of Lolita, there is ‘nothing in the world that I loathe more than group activity’. Paul Braffort nevertheless makes a case for l’oulipisme nabokovien, in part by considering Nabokov and Queneau’s shared love of Martin Gardner’s Scientific American articles on puzzles and logical paradoxes.] [...]
Becker makes clear what is exciting about the Oulipo: the discovery and application of constraints; the annihilation of cliché; the setting up of encounters between literature, mathematics, music and computers; analysing and exploring, but also broadening and generalising, the dynamics of composition (Le Lionnais, Becker tells us, went so far as to devise the formulation ‘Ou-X-Po’ to stand for the way any practice might be submitted to constraints – OuCuiPo might be the name of a group of constraint-based chefs).
I like “Ou-X-Po” a lot. But I confess I don’t understand “beau présent, or ‘beautiful inlaw’”; does anybody have any enlightenment to shed?